Book Review: Precedents in Architecture

Precedents in Architecture: Analytic Diagrams, Formative Ideas, and Partis (Fourth Edition) by Roger H. Clark and Michael Pause
Wiley, 2012
Paperback, 352 pages

My first exposure to Clark and Pause's Precedents in Architecture was during a semester in Italy in the mid-1990s, where studio was a mix of analysis and design. An earlier edition of the book was in the small but quality library at the study center, and in its pages was the church we were analyzing. Like any student, I copied the diagrams into my sketchbook and showed them later to my professor, only to be berated for going that route, of making the analysis too simplistic. For him, analysis was not just diagramming circulation, hierarchy, symmetry, geometry, and so forth; it was a creative process, like design, that resulted in each student having his or her own take on the building. In other words, Precedents in Architecture was objective analysis and our work was subjective.

A decade and a half later, finding myself teaching a second-year design studio that included a two-week building analysis, I was confronted with the decision to use Clark and Pause's book. While I did not require that students use it, I noticed that many of them did, given that by the fourth edition the book's line weights and shadings were unmistakable. But traces of my professor's comments lingered in my mind, so for me and my students the diagrams became a step toward realizing a deeper analysis of a particular building, not an end in themselves.

The book's consistent approach to the various issues of analysis (the authors define those as structure, natural light, massing, plan to section or elevation, circulation to use-space, unit to whole, repetitive to unique, symmetry and balance, geometry, additive and subtractive, hierarchy) allows students to see a building as abstractions akin to their own design partis, as if they're seeing the project in its design stage. This is helpful in terms of cross referencing the various buildings (118 are included in the fourth edition) and finding the essences of the designs, but the tactic must be balanced by a prolonged look back at the building itself. For what is gained in the diagrams is lost in the fact that all but a few of the projects in the book are actual buildings; they exist and are made of materials and light, they sit on the earth and change a landscape. Analysis must also take these and other conditions of the built reality into account. So for students heading back to school, go ahead and pick up this new edition of the classic book, but realize that architects have dealt with issues beyond what Clark and Pause define, so there is much, much more to be discovered.


  1. Yes, all such means, Clark and Pauses’s among them, assemble one's preparation, poised on an edge, leap-ready, towards the ineffable.

  2. I've only taken a look at a selection of pages that Wiley's preview ability allows, but I'm a little disappointed. The notion of collecting a number of very fine examples of architecture into one work and comparing them objectively in the same method is incredibly valuable and, frankly, priceless for students of architecture.

    That being said, the diagrams that explain each building are really worthless. The point of diagrams is to isolate perceptibly unrelated phenomena and data and to compare them in a specific way so as to synthesize a new understanding about the identity, function, and relation of the elements individually and as a whole. This inherently necessitates a dialectical position about the elements in the diagram, as well as an assertion about what the diagrams are about.

    Now, I'm looking at Alvar Aalto's town hall, and the diagrams for "Unit to Whole" and "Additive to Subtractive" are completely the same, and the diagram for "Hierarchy" uses the the same image as both but with different line weights. What insights am I to gain from these diagrams? How are these diagrams justifications for why this building is good architecture? Together, all these diagrams should tell me why this town hall is different and unique from other town halls. Further, these diagrams should tell something about what the architect was thinking, what constraints gave the architecture the form it did. The obvious aim is: given similar conditions, I should be able to learn from what Alvar Aalto did so that I can generate something new from what he accomplished while remaining completely true to the particular conditions of the present project.

    Granted, you can make a mild argument about the value of showing to students different ways of analyzing a building, but this work still fall short of teaching how to understand a building as a product of prioritized decisions, specific site conditions, and as a synthesis of established methods regarding technology, construction, materials, and light. These diagrams don't even touch on things such as the relation of inside spaces to outside spaces, or the creation of public space, or the relationship of program and form. It would be better to simply have a collection of the buildings' plans and sections so that students could generate their own diagrams, and consequently their own positions on the value of each of these buildings.


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